This is Cat Garcia’s final post as part of her FanGraphs residency. She is a freelance baseball writer whose work has appeared at The Athletic, MLB.com, the Chicago Sun-Times, La Vida Baseball, and Baseball Prospectus, among others. She is a Chicago native and previously worked at Wrigley Field before becoming a full-time freelancer. Follow her on Twitter at @TheBaseballGirl.
It’s been a long journey for Jaime García. Over the course of a 10-year career, he has battled back from three major surgeries. The Cardinals sent him to the Braves in the 2017 offseason, and he was traded twice more before the season was done. He signed with the Blue Jays this past February but was designated for assignment at the end of August after putting up a 5.93 ERA and a 5.23 FIP in 74 innings of work. A day later, García signed a minor-league deal with a Chicago Cubs team in the thick of a pennant race.
The question was, what would García’s role be in Chicago? He had lost his job as a starter in Toronto and was sporting a less-than-ideal ERA. But García came with one asset that stood out to the Cubs — a strong slider that looked brilliant out of the bullpen.
“I feel like… being in the bullpen has allowed me to feel pitches a lot better and finish pitches better,” García told me when I spoke to him. “I think that’s had an impact on my slider. You only have to pitch an inning, and even if you’re not feeling 100% or you’re fatigued, you just keep going out there and kind of feel things better, and it’s only for an inning or two.”
Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey was quick to point out the uniqueness of García’s slider.
“The ability to get it under a right-handed hitter not just a left-handed hitter,” Hickey said. “A lot of times, those left-handed relief pitchers that have the breaking ball use it primarily versus the left-handed hitters. But he’s certainly able to get up under the right-handed hitter very well.”
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This is Cat Garcia’s second post as part of her September residency. She is a freelance baseball writer whose work has appeared at The Athletic, MLB.com, the Chicago Sun-Times, La Vida Baseball, and Baseball Prospectus, among others. She is a Chicago native and previously worked at Wrigley Field before becoming a full-time freelancer. Follow her on Twitter at @TheBaseballGirl.
The Cincinnati Reds have been surprisingly interesting in 2018. Not interesting in the way your typical contending ball club might be, but interesting in some curious ways. They started off the season with an MLB-worst record of 3-15. They fired their manager, Bryan Price, after four seasons with the club. And in an unexpected move, they acquired struggling former-ace Matt Harvey from the Mets in early May.
In the middle of all of that, there has been a significant — and likely longer-lasting — bright spot. As FanGraphs’ own Jeff Sullivan recently wrote, third baseman Eugenio Suarez has continued to build upon his impressive 2017 breakout season. Suarez’s 133 wRC+ is currently tied for ninth-best in the National League. He’s already hit a career-high 32 home runs this season, and he currently has the 12th-highest ISO in the NL, just two points behind Travis Shaw.
And while his .322 BABIP is his highest since 2015, it isn’t so far off his career norms, and there is reason to believe his healthy batting line isn’t just the result of good batted-ball luck. As Sullivan pointed out in his piece, Suarez is making much harder contact than he has previously. His .373 wOBA is a career-best, while his xwOBA suggests it could even be a bit better.
Suarez told David Laurila earlier in the season that he hadn’t made any adjustments to his swing. But it seems there has been a new development on that front, one that has contributed to Suarez’s success.
This is Cat Garcia’s first post as part of her September residency. She is a freelance baseball writer whose work has appeared at The Athletic, MLB.com, the Chicago Sun-Times, La Vida Baseball, and Baseball Prospectus, among others. She is a Chicago native and previously worked at Wrigley Field before becoming a full-time freelancer. Follow her on Twitter at @TheBaseballGirl.
You have to feel for Xander Bogaerts. During a season in which he’s hitting .291/.362/.524 — good for a career-best 134 wRC+ and 4.8 WAR — he’s just the third-best position player on a Red Sox team stacked with young, homegrown talent. Throw in Chris Sale, arguably the American League’s best pitcher, and it is easy to understand how Bogaerts has managed to get a bit lost in the shuffle.
Before this season, Bogaerts put up a career line of .283/.339/.409, with a .326 wOBA, a 101 wRC+, and 16.8 total WAR. In 2018, Bogaerts has taken a step forward. I spoke to Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers about what he thinks has made the difference for Bogaerts this season.
“I think it’s just the consistency with his lower half,” Hyers said. “Last year, I think he felt he got a little too narrow, he was reaching for balls on the outer half and just didn’t have that stability. This year, he came in, he talked to me in the offseason and he said, ‘This is what I want to do, and I want to improve this because I hit too many ground balls last year. [I want to] have better posture,’ and from spring training on, he’s done that.”
Hyers is right. Take a look at Bogaerts’ batting stance from 2017.
Here is his stance in July of 2018.
Bogaerts is more closed off in the latter of those, which allows him to get into his legs more and maintain athleticism in his swing. According to Hyers, the adjustment has helped Bogaerts lay off pitches outside the zone and allowed him to be more selective.
Notice where Bogaerts’ legs are in this at-bat from 2017:
Now, look at his stance from this at-bat in 2018. His legs are much closer together and kept underneath him, as Hyers pointed out:
“I agreed that he needed to stay more upright,” Hyers said of what he felt Bogaerts needed to work on in the offseason. “I think when his legs got underneath him he stayed more upright, he had good posture so he could utilize the frame that he has… I think when you have that stability, it helps you see the ball better, and it’s kind of those simple-but-consistent cues he has that have helped him.”
And that wasn’t his only adjustment. “Last year, he got in the habit of chasing sliders away,” Hyers said. One scout who has seen Bogaerts mentioned that staying in an athletic position allows hitters to maintain balance, which is key versus offspeed pitches. That’s something Hyers said the two worked diligently on over the offseason. And the changes appear to have paid dividends: after years of posting swinging-strike rates of roughly 15% against the slider, Bogaerts has recorded a career-low mark of 12.1% in 2018.
“I think my motivation is the team that we have and trying to be as good as all the other guys on the team,” Bogaerts told NBC Sports in August. “You don’t want to stay back. I mean, we’ve got a couple guys, MVP [possibilities] on our team hopefully. That’s in the conversation, and I mean, you don’t want to be too far behind them.”
By WAR, Bogaerts is currently the third-best American League shortstop, behind only Francisco Lindor and Andrelton Simmons. Bogaerts is still only 25 years old and has the rest of a young career to continue his improvements. For now, though, he’s demonstrating progress, and the adjustments he made in the offseason appear to be working. If the trend continues, Bogaerts just might force us to pay him the attention we’ve so happily bestowed on his better-known teammates.
This is Nate Freiman’s fourth post as part of his August residency. Nate is a former MLB first baseman. He also played for Team Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic and spent time in the Atlantic and Mexican Leagues. He can be found on Twitter @natefreiman. His wife Amanda routinely beats him at golf. To read work by earlier residents, click here.
On June 7, 2013, I got the start against Chris Sale in Chicago. Roughly 22,000 people were there to see us beat the White Sox 4-3 on a Josh Donaldson sixth-inning grand slam.
I was on deck when Donaldson homered, and consequently faced a very angry Sale. He started me off with a slider. The pitch appeared to start more or less in the first-base dugout before catching the better part of the outside corner. Then he threw a changeup. I was geared up for 97. I buckled and took a second called strike. I was down 0-2 and still hadn’t seen the fastball. If you’re concerned about catching up to the fastball, the key is to slow down and think, “Be on time.” Hopefully that doesn’t translate to start a little early. That’s when you chase the back-foot slider.
Sale’s next pitch was 97 mph at the top of the zone. It looked even harder because I hadn’t seen the fastball. Strike three swinging. I got soft-soft-harded.
In my last post, I mentioned that at-bats are “path dependent,” meaning that each pitch is going to depend on the previous pitch. It’s nice to know what percentage of fastballs a guy throws. It’s really nice to have it broken down by count. Luckily there’s a really cool graphic for that on Baseball Savant. Here’s what it looks like for Blake Snell:
The chart shows that Snell throws 45.4% fastballs in 0-1 counts. In those counts, sometimes he got ahead with a fastball and sometimes he got ahead with offspeed. Do the pitches that came before it matter? Because soft-soft-hard is merely one example of a three-pitch sequence. I was curious whether MLB pitchers have measurable pitch-sequencing tendencies in other counts, too.
This is Nate Freiman’s third post as part of his August residency. Nate is a former MLB first baseman. He also played for Team Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic and spent time in the Atlantic and Mexican Leagues. He can be found on Twitter @natefreiman. His wife Amanda routinely beats him at golf. To read work by earlier residents, click here.
One of my favorite people in baseball is Tom Tornincasa. He was my hitting coach in the Double-A Texas League in 2012. Apart from being a great coach, he kept the clubhouse loose. Ask anyone who played for him; they’ll know what I mean.
At about 6:50, we’d be stretching on the foul line, and he’d walk out with his notebook.
That was the start of our advance scouting meeting.
“Ninety to ninety-four, slider, changeup. Sixty percent fastball, thirty percent slider.”
Dan Straily led the minor leagues in strikeouts that year, spotting his fastball to both sides of the plate and mixing in an almost unhittable slider — unhittable in that it was un-layoff-able — that he’d throw in any count. He was in the big leagues that September.
“One more thing. He sucks.”
This is Nate Freiman’s second post as part of his August residency. Nate is a former MLB first baseman. He also played for Team Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic and spent time in the Atlantic and Mexican Leagues. He can be found on Twitter @natefreiman. His wife Amanda routinely beats him at golf. To read work by earlier residents, click here.
Being a tall hitter came with its drawbacks. Long arms, lots of moving parts. Eight-hour bus rides starting at 11pm. Getting pitched inside. (In fairness, I saw thousands of pitches and only suffered two broken hand bones.)
And yes, the low strikes. My entire career, anytime I’d get a low strike called there would be someone from the dugout yelling, “He’s six-eight!” Hopefully, by that time, it wasn’t news to the umpire. My hitting coach in A-ball told me to wear my pants Hunter Pence style. Above the knees. He figured the umpire would see the bottom of the zone better. I figured that would get me ejected.
So I can honestly say I sympathize with Aaron Judge. Travis Sawchik has done great work on Judge’s relationship with the bottom of the zone. It makes sense that a guy that big is a strike zone anomaly, but do other guys have the same problem? I used Statcast data to investigate.
The MLB pitch data features anywhere between 50 and 90 columns of information for every single pitch thrown. One of them is “sz_bot,” or strike-zone bottom. I used this number to adjust the strike zone for each hitter. The problem is, sz_bot varies. Of the hitters who have seen at least 500 pitches in 2018, the top of the zone measurement (sz_top) has an average range of 2.8 feet, while the bottom of the zone (sz_bot) varied an average of 3.4 feet.
Most of this is due to random outliers. One of the columns for David Freese, for example, suggests his strike zone on one pitch extended up 11 feet. To address this, I took the median strike-zone top and bottom for each hitter instead of the average.
Once determining the approximate strike-zone boundaries for each hitter, I isolated somewhat arbitrary window at the top and bottom of the zone. The window at the top of the zone is simply every pitch that is coded as being at least half the diameter of the baseball above sz_top. The bottom window is every pitch located between half a ball below sz_bot and one foot below sz_bot. The batters receiving strike calls on these pitches are, in theory, those who are the greatest victims of low strike calls.
Not surprisingly, Judge is way ahead. In fact, there’s a statistically significant difference between him and Peralta, who’s still ahead of everyone else in baseball. These guys also happen to have an average height of 75.4 inches, or a little over 6-foot-3.
This is Nate Freiman’s first post as part of his August residency. Nate is a former MLB first baseman. He also played for Team Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic and spent time in the Atlantic and Mexican Leagues. He can be found on Twitter @natefreiman. His wife Amanda routinely beats him at golf.
Editor’s Note: a version of this work was recently presented at SaberSeminar 2018.
In 2011, I was playing at High-A for the Padres. I’d graduated from the Midwest League to Lake Elsinore in the California League. (They have the cool storm-eyes logo, but it scares my toddler so my old hats are in boxes.) Since we were so close to San Diego, we got lots of guys on MLB rehab assignments. I was a senior sign making $1,300 a month, so it was huge when someone like Orlando Hudson came through and bought us Outback.
During their assignments, every MLB guy got The Question: “What’s it like up there?” The best answer I ever heard was, “Chuck E Cheese for adults.” O-Dog, as Hudson was known, had a pretty strong reply, too: “Better balls, better lights, and a better zone.”
In this case, “better zone” means two things. The first is size. (“That’s outside!”) The second is consistency. (“That’s been a strike all day!”) And O-Dog was right: the umpiring (just like the play on the field) does get better as you go up. We’d be in some cramped clubhouse, playing cards, and eating our $11 PB+Js, watching the big club, when a pitcher would inevitably yell, “That’s a strike!” And maybe it was… by Northwest League standards.
But those standards are different than the ones at higher levels. For example: have you ever seen a check swing get overruled? I have. In Boise, back in 2009. The hitter at the plate checked his swing, and the umpire responded by yelling, “Yes he did!” After the batting team complained, however, the home-plate umpire decided to appeal to his colleague at third base, who ruled it not a swing. I’ve never seen something like that before or since.
It’s no secret that the umpiring in the majors is superior to the sort found in the minors. It’s also no secret that part of the superior umpiring is a smaller, more well defined zone. But what about the different levels of the minors? Does the strike zone get smaller at each level? Does it get more consistent? I wanted some answers.
In order to get them, I needed minor-league TrackMan data. That data is all proprietary, but one team sent some of it to me on the condition of anonymity. (If anyone from that organization is reading this, thank you again!) The org in question sent me a sample of 20,000 taken pitches divided across the four full-season levels. The team trimmed the data to contain only horizontal and vertical location, pitcher and batter handedness, count, and a binary “strike” or “ball” call. There was no other identifying information.
This is Alexis LaMarsh’s first piece as part of her July Residency at FanGraphs. Alexis is a communications student at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri. She enjoys breaking down numbers and exploring the cultural side of baseball. She has written for her own site, Pinch Hero, as well as Cardinals blog St. Louis Bullpen. She plans to present research at Saberseminar in August. Alexis can also be found on Twitter @clutchmarp.
With action on the field subject to an increasing number of starts and stops and the average time of game climbing in recent seasons, commissioner Rob Manfred has stressed taking active steps to reverse the trend. In 2018, MLB implemented new pace-of-play rules, including mound-visit limits and timers on inning breaks and pitching changes, part of a continuous effort that has been underway since 2015.
The effects on game length are still unclear. Per Baseball Reference, the average time of a nine-inning game last season was three hours and five minutes. Thus far in 2018, it’s down to two hours and fifty-nine minutes. In a recent interview with The Athletic, Manfred credited the league’s recent rule changes for the dip in game time, as well as improvements in the game’s pace, though his comments to that effect were relatively vague.
While it’s certainly possible that this year’s initiatives have led to slightly shorter games, Manfred’s claim suggests that he is perhaps missing a larger, more critical point: more than any superficial pace of play component, what happens at the plate appears to ultimately decide the pace and length of games. The current trends on the mound and in the batter’s box suggest that there may be a limit to the efficacy of pace-of-play initiatives. That’s of particular concern in light of the drastic steps the league has discussed to further address the issue. In service to the goal of shortening games and increasing action, MLB may end up adopting a posture that is hostile to innovation.
Part of the pace-of-play issue is what’s being thrown. In the past 16 years (for which the data is available on FanGraphs), fastball usage has trended downward, while offspeed and breaking-ball usage have trended upward:
This is Jake Mailhot’s fourth post as part of his May Residency at FanGraphs. A lifelong Mariners fan, Jake now lives in Bellingham, Washington, just a little too far away from Seattle to make it to games regularly, which is sometimes for the best. He is a staff editor at Mariners blog Lookout Landing. He can be found on Twitter at @jakemailhot. Read the works of all our residents here.
Among the various career arcs in professional baseball, the conversion from starting pitcher to reliever is one of the more common ones. It’s a last resort for aging veterans and a tried-and-true way to get the most out of middling starters. But when a talented prospect is moved to the bullpen, there are bound to be questions. It has been generally understood that a starting pitcher is more valuable than a relief pitcher, so teams are usually more conservative with their prospects, often letting them at least try to work things out as a starter before pulling the plug. But in an era when relievers are throwing more innings than ever before, a high-octane reliever might prove to be more valuable than just another starter.
Back in 2016, the Mariners moved one of their best pitching prospects from the rotation to the bullpen. Edwin Díaz took to the conversion quickly and was in the majors a few weeks later, completely skipping Triple-A. He was soon installed as the Mariners closer and has been one of the best relievers in the majors since. His already excellent fastball velocity received the usual boost from shorter stints on the mound, and his slider has developed into a plus-plus pitch.
It was a risky move for the Mariners. Instead of letting the 22-year-old try to develop his changeup in the rotation, they shifted him to the bullpen and aggressively promoted him because the major-league team needed bullpen help desperately.
I wondered if any other teams had tried something similar. Below you’ll see the results of a very specific query: every relief pitcher who has thrown at least 10 innings in the majors and had been a starting pitcher in the minors as recently as last year. To narrow the field even further, these pitchers all recorded fewer than five innings pitched in Triple-A and have posted an average leverage index greater than 1.25 when entering the game.
It’s an interesting list. Jordan Hicks, the man with the fastest fastball in all the land, sits atop it with almost 27 innings pitched and just 16 strikeouts to his name. Then we have a Rule 5 pick, Brad Keller, who has recently been in the mix for high-leverage innings in the Royals bullpen. Moving on. Justin Anderson wasn’t a highly regarded pitching prospect in the Angels organization, but he has added more than 6 mph to his average fastball velocity out of the pen and given Mike Scioscia another option in his constant closer carousel. This article was almost about Anderson. But the final name on the list is far more intriguing — and not just because of his 80-grade baseball name.
This is Jake Mailhot’s third post as part of his May Residency at FanGraphs. A lifelong Mariners fan, Jake now lives in Bellingham, Washington, just a little too far away from Seattle to make it to games regularly, which is sometimes for the best. He is a staff editor at Mariners blog Lookout Landing. He can be found on Twitter at @jakemailhot.
Earlier this year, Jeff Sullivan wrote a pair of articles, each about a pitcher who appeared to be McCullersing. That term, of course, is a reference to Lance McCullersJr., who in 2016 began throwing his excellent curveball more often than his fastball. He’s led all of baseball in curveball usage since then. He wound up throwing his curveball an astonishing 75% of the time in Game Seven of the ALCS last postseason. That appearance was peak McCullersing.
He started off this year throwing his curveball around the same amount as last year, 48% of the time. But when the calendar flipped to May, something changed. Just look at this graph of his secondary pitch usage in 2018.
That’s… interesting. In his start last night (not included here), McCullers threw his curveball around 40% of the time. That’s pretty normal for him. But it’s been less normal for him of late. In his start against the Angels last Monday, McCullers actually threw more changeups than curveballs, the latter pitch representing just 21.4% of his total count for the night. The last time his curveball usage fell below 30% was all the way back on August 3, 2015, during his rookie year.