Four Player Crushes of Mine

Riley Greene
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

Over the weekend, I participated in a panel at the SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix. It was a ton of fun, and I enjoyed getting a chance to nerd out about baseball with a bunch of like-minded people. The awards show wasn’t bad, either. I look forward to Michael Baumann and I making subtle references to it the rest of the year (or maybe just me; Baumann is less arrogant than I am).

The topic of my panel, where I was joined by Yahoo Sports’ Hannah Keyser and moderator Vince Gennaro, was players we love for the 2023 season. I love Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout most for the 2023 season, but more specifically, it was about players we love who aren’t widely regarded as superstars. I came prepared; I picked two hitters and two pitchers who fit the bill.

A panel isn’t the same as a presentation, and our discussion ranged widely around these and other players (Hannah loves Wander Franco and Hunter Greene, Vince loves Dylan Cease), but I thought I’d lay out my research here as well. If you’re a frequent reader, you probably already know how much I like these guys, but it never hurts to reiterate a point.

Lars Nootbaar
File this one under the Jeff Sullivan school of selecting breakouts that have already happened. Nootbaar has already separated himself from the pack of Cardinals outfielders competing for a few crowded spots, but I’m not sure everyone has noticed just yet. Tyler O’Neill has two Gold Gloves and muscles that wouldn’t look out of place on a bodybuilder. Dylan Carlson has prospect pedigree. What does Nootbaar bring to the table? Merely the two most important skills in the game: finding good pitches to hit and making loud contact when you do swing.

It sounds so simple. Quite honestly, it is so simple. Hitting is a complex practice, and hitting coaches have no shortage of things to work on with their charges: timing cues, hand load, swing thoughts, stride length, and plenty else to boot. The point of all that complex maneuvering, though, is to swing at good pitches and then hit them hard. I wouldn’t claim to know how to coach hitting, but when it comes to looking at outputs, I feel pretty good about a low chase rate and high exit velocity numbers on balls that hitters get into.

Nootbaar has always been a keen student of the strike zone. The Cardinals drafted him as a low-power, high-OBP hitter out of USC, and he promptly backed those skills up in the professional ranks, posting delectable walk rates across four levels over the 2018 and ’19 seasons. He did so with no power to speak of, which is the reason he lasted until the eighth round in the first place. And when I say no power, I really mean it: over more than 500 plate appearances in those two years, he managed only nine homers, a shockingly light rate for a 6-foot-3 corner outfielder.

Then he got powerful. More specifically, he spent years working to increase his swing speed. He’d always looked the part of a power hitter; he simply made changes to make perception match reality. The raw numbers are compelling: 11 homers in 260 plate appearances in 2021, followed up with 18 in 424 PAs in ’22. This wasn’t a case of a ton of fly balls scraping over the wall, either; the raw exit velocity numbers backed up his improvement. He posted an 89th-percentile maximum exit velocity in 2022, in line with some fearsome power hitters.

Nootbaar also walked a phenomenal 14.7% of the time in the major leagues last year. He did so the way he always has: by forcing pitchers to throw him something in the strike zone. His 24.5% chase rate would have been a top-15 mark in baseball if he had enough PAs to qualify. As a result, most of his swings come at pitches he can drive. That results in some extra called strikes — he swings less often than average at in-zone pitches — but that’s a fine tradeoff, because pitchers aren’t exactly lining up to challenge him in the zone.

As an added benefit, when he does hit the ball, he’s both putting it in the air and pulling it. He pulled 38% of his air balls last year, above league average and in line with pull-power disciple Josh Donaldson. Elevating and celebrating hasn’t always been in his range, but now that it is, Nootbaar looks like a substantially better than average hitter for years to come. Oh yeah: he’s also playing center field for Japan in the WBC, so he’s got some defensive value too.

To be honest, I’m not sure Nootbaar still counts as under the radar. There’s a reason he’s frequently among the most searched players on FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. His pepper-grinding celebration has gone international. He’s laughing it up with Ohtani. He’s projected for the third-best batting line on the Cardinals this year. He might already be properly rated. But on the off chance you haven’t noticed, consider this fair warning: Nootbaar is for real, and he’s spectacular.

Riley Greene
Dan Szymborski is ahead of me on this one, but consider this seconding what he said. It’s downright weird to strike out as much as Greene did without some fatal flaw somewhere. He chased less than league average and made more contact than average and struck out nearly 29% of the time anyway. The list of players who batted 300 times last year, struck out more often than Greene, and ran (as he did) single-digit swinging-strike rates is zero players long.

That’s one reason to love Greene for this year: even if he doesn’t change anything he’s doing, he probably won’t keep striking out so much. He’ll probably miss more often — he did as he came up through the minors — but there’s plenty of room for Greene to miss the ball more often than he did in 2022 and yet strike out less.

When he does contact the ball, I’m also betting he’ll do better than he did last year. Greene showed premium power throughout the minors, and he hit the snot out of the ball even in the majors. Just one problem: he didn’t get much to show for it. I’m willing to bet that won’t continue forever, though, even playing in Comerica Park’s spacious confines.

If there’s one area for worry, it’s Greene’s newfound groundball tendency. He hit a ton of grounders in 2022, which had a lot to do with his poor power numbers. Pitchers didn’t particularly try to pitch him down; he saw a roughly average amount of sinkers and low fastballs overall. He was just on top too often. I’m counting on Greene to fix that with experience. If he does, he might be the anchor hitter Detroit has been searching for.

As a side note, this is another favorite category of mine: picking top prospects who didn’t excel in year one as breakout candidates. Nothing Greene did in 2022 changed the general trajectory of his career, and he was one of the best hitters in the minors a year ago. Picking him to be good is hardly going out on a limb, even if sentiment is down at the moment.

Tyler Anderson
Anderson had a career year in 2022, but I’m betting that he’ll be able to replicate a lot of his success 30 miles (and two hours in traffic) southeast of Dodger Stadium. He’s not the pitcher he was in Colorado anymore, and this isn’t simply a case of Dodgers magic; many of his changes predate his arrival in southern California.

Against righties, Anderson has always relied on an excellent changeup. He complements it with a cutter that plays well off of his fastball and uses those three pitches to keep them off balance. That changeup is shaped differently these days; over the years, he’s added horizontal break and killed vertical movement. That heightens the total drop he gets on the pitch, which has resulted in more grounders and whiffs.

In the past two years, Anderson has overhauled his repertoire against lefties by adding a sinker. It’s not just any sinker, either: he throws it from a sidearm slot, releasing the ball nearly a foot lower than the rest of his pitches. That release point trickery started in 2021, and he kept it up last year. He also added a new wrinkle: a cutter that he throws from the lower arm slot that initially mirrors his sinker but then cuts instead.

Anderson had long had a strange problem: he was a left-hander who didn’t have an obvious out pitch against lefties. His only breaking pitch is a cutter, so he can’t dial up a sweeping slider or huge curveball or anything of that nature. Mixing in a sinker gave him far more variety against lefties, and also gave him a way to get grounders when the situation called for it.

That’s the detailed version of why I like Anderson. The high-level view is simply this: he was good last year in a way that doesn’t look particularly unsustainable to me. I don’t think he has another 4-WAR season in him, but I’m also higher than our projection systems. I think he’s a perfectly acceptable choice to follow Ohtani in the Angels’ rotation, and if they make a playoff push, I expect Anderson to be right in the middle of it.

Taylor Rogers
Again with the lefty pitchers. This one is more of a speculative addition based on something I’ve wanted Rogers to do for a long time. He’s built a career out of making opposing lefties look silly; his sinker/slider pitch mix is a nightmare to face from the left side of the plate. In his career, Rogers has been one of the best pitchers in the game against lefties, and roughly average against righties.

That works just fine for a reliever, particularly if you’re a team that focuses on finding the right spots to use your guys. The Giants will do just that, and I think that Rogers has a high floor for that reason. It’s easy to imagine him cutting down the toughest lefties and high-ball hitters the other team has to offer whenever the opportunity presents itself.

If that were my only reason to like Rogers, I wouldn’t have put him in my list. “Solid reliever who had a nightmarish season of run prevention turns it around” is a tale as old as time. I’m putting Rogers here because I’m hoping, perhaps without reason, that he’ll add a cutter and turn from a very good reliever into an elite one.

See, Rogers is only average against righties because his two pitches are tailored to beat lefties. Sweeping sliders have big platoon splits. They get weak contact against same-handed hitters, but that contact edge disappears when the batter is on the other side of the plate. Pitchers who rely on sinker/sweeper pairings often struggle with opposite-handed hitters.

One frequent plan to mitigate platoon problems is adding a changeup. I’m fairly certain that Rogers doesn’t have a changeup, though, because otherwise he’d throw one more often than never. It’s not that his slider is completely unplayable against righties, but it’s been roughly average by run value against them in his career. Meanwhile, it’s 2.5 runs above average per 100 pitches against lefties, an elite mark. Take away someone’s best weapon, and it’s no surprise they get worse. A changeup would fill that gap — if he could throw one.

But teams that teach sweepers often encounter pitchers who can’t master a changeup, and they have a solution: throw a cutter. The grip that induces floating lateral movement in sliders seems conducive to a cut fastball that functions as an ersatz changeup. Blake Treinen is my favorite example: with the Dodgers, he’s thrown a cutter more than half the time when he’s facing a lefty (he’s right-handed) and almost never when he’s facing a righty.

Rogers can definitely spin it, but he hasn’t pitched for teams I consider highly motivated pitch designers. Maybe the Brewers fit that bill, but he joined them mid-season and didn’t have a lot of time to adjust. I’m hoping the Giants sell Rogers on a cutter that suddenly makes him a plus pitcher against righties, too. Add that to what he already does well, and he could be one of the best relievers in baseball.

I can’t exactly recapture the discussion we had on that day, which was partially about these four players but also about what makes us interested in players, and what hitting and pitching skills we’re most interested in. I came away from that hour with a ton of ideas for new research and new articles, though, so hopefully the gist will come across in the next few weeks. In the meantime, I hope this article got the broad strokes across: I’m a Nootbaar maniac, and I like random lefty free-agent pitchers too.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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David Klein
1 year ago

Not that anyone asked, but I’ll go with David Peterson, he’s got a massive whiff rate on his slider, and gets grounders at a very good rate . If he could get his walk rate down a bit he’s a #3 starter imo.

1 year ago
Reply to  David Klein

David – I’ve seen you post other Mets-centric comments, so I figure it’d be good to ask you – do you prefer DP over Megill? I tend to prefer Tylor due to his pitch mix, but worry a bit over him maintaining his velo through a full season as a starter. What do you think?

David Klein
1 year ago
Reply to  Salty

Sorry for not responding earlier I just believe in Peterson’s secondaries especially his slider over any of Megill’s pitches. Megill has also not had arm injuries like Megill has and doesn’t have the stamina issues.

David Klein
1 year ago
Reply to  David Klein

Meant Peterson hasn’t had arm injuries like Megill has

1 year ago
Reply to  David Klein

With Ed’s injury, I wonder if the Mets will consider making Megill the 8th or 9th inning guy. They could use the help in the rotation, too, but the arm history is a concern that might be better mitigated with a full-time move to the pen.

David Klein
1 year ago
Reply to  Salty

I feel like they have more depth in the bullpen than in the rotation.