Hot Starts to Believe In

T.S. Eliot once mused that April is the cruelest month, but for me, it’s the most curmudgeonly one. While baseball returning is always a good thing, a good portion of my April job is to (partially) crush the hopes and dreams of fans excited about hot starts from their favorite players. While stats don’t literally lie, April numbers, thanks to our old friend and scapegoat small sample size, only tell a little bit of the story of 2019. But as cautious as I try to be about jumping to conclusions in baseball’s first month, at least some of those torrid beginnings will contain more than the customary grain of truth. So let’s go out on that proverbial limb and try to guess which scorching Aprils represent something real.

Yoan Moncada

I’ve been burned before touching this hot stove, but there’s something so compelling about Moncada’s early-season performances as to once again disarm the skeptic in me. In 2018’s version of this piece, Moncada’s high exit velocity and his .267/.353/.524 April line had me believing that he had finally turned the corner, the one long-expected from a young, talented player with impressive physical tools.

As the narrator meme goes, he had not turned that corner. Moncada spent the next two months with an OPS that didn’t touch .600, and his final 2018 line represented no real improvement over his 2017.

Moncada is hitting the ball just as hard as he did last year, with his average exit velocity ranking sixth in baseball. But this time around, his performance is also coming with some significant progress in his contact statistics. Moncada’s profile has always been a bit weird in that he doesn’t seem to have a serious problem chasing bad pitches, certainly not as you would expect from a player who just led the league in strikeouts with the fourth-highest total in baseball history. But Moncada was in the top 20 in not swinging at pitches outside the zone.

In 2019, he’s been more aggressive, swinging at more bad and good pitches, but there hasn’t been a corresponding contact tradeoff, and he’s in fact making more contact overall, especially against good pitches. Given that one of the purposes of plate discipline is for hitters to actually hit the good pitch they eke out of the dude on the mound, I once again return to the ranks of the believers.

Carlos Rodon

I’ve always been a believer in Rodon’s abilities, but when it comes to his health? Not so much. While Rodon has never required Tommy John surgery, he’s missed some time due to injury in every season. So far, we’re good on that front, and Rodon’s been impressive over four starts, striking out nearly 12 batters a game and holding onto a FIP under two.

Despite the yearly articles about him working on his changeup, Rodon’s never been great at changing speeds, but his slider is one of the best in baseball and like Patrick Corbin in 2018, Rodon’s been riding it hard and getting good results. With the most valuable slider of 2019 so far, and Rodon avoiding those strike zone mistakes better than he did last year, I’m cautiously optimistic about him keeping up borderline ace numbers.

Mike Trout

Oh my god. Mike Trout had another gear this whole time.

It’s weird to see Trout on a list like this, but as frightening a player as he’s been over the course of his career, his plate discipline is actually getting better, bordering on Joey Votto level. He’s swinging at fewer pitches than he ever has since arriving in the majors but that drop is entirely from not swinging at bad pitches. There’s something manifestly unfair about a player with Trout’s power also apparently developing the contact skills of Luis Castillo or Juan Pierre. Trout currently stands with 16 walks against four strikeouts, which I’m not sure is even legal. I’m going to be suspicious of anyone with a .382/.593/.882 batting line, but Trout is making this plausible to the extent that it scares me a bit.

Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows

I’m disappointed that the Pittsburgh Pirates showed such little aggressiveness in the market this offseason, but I found the Chris Archer trade that sent Glasnow and Meadows to Tampa to at least be justifiable for them. After all, with most of their core prospects having graduated to the team, they arguably couldn’t wait around for Glasnow to ditch the walks or for Meadows to lose the injured list appearances.

The trade is looking quite a bit worse right now, not unlike the swap of Fernando Tatis Jr. for a struggling James Shields a few years ago. Meadows has been healthy and shown a real bump in his power, and Glasnow having an elite walk rate is something I didn’t see coming. Glasnow in particular showed signs of improvement after joining the Rays in 2018. One big difference is his faith in his curveball, a top 10 curve in baseball that Glasnow is throwing twice as often as in 2018, a change significant enough to indicate a real change in approach. Incidentally, the Rays have three of the top 10 curveball pitchers in 2019. Normally, I’d be worried that Glasnow’s changeup, a pitch he had been working on in 2016-2017, never evolved to become a real part of his repertoire, but he’s locating his curve well enough that he’s using it against lefties as if it were a changeup.

Luis Castillo

People keep asking me if Castillo has turned the corner this year for the Reds and finally become the ace he looked to be developing into after his 2017 call-up. In reality, he turned the corner in the second-half of last year; his hot start to 2019 is more consolidating his gains than establishing a new plateau of performance. In any case, Castillo has the best contact rate of any starting pitcher in baseball in 2019, and his already excellent changeup keeps improving, going from a 23% whiff rate in his rookie season to 27% in 2018, and up to 33% this year. Castillo has also improved his average launch angle allowed to hitters by two degrees, enough to rank him in the top 10 in baseball, which is important given the park he plays in.

Peter Alonso

OK, he’s not likely to keep hitting one out of every three fly balls out of the park, but Alonso’s pure power has been tantalizing the wider public since he notably crushed a Jorge Guzman fastball during the Futures Game last year.

That wasn’t a fluke, and Alonso currently has the hardest-hit baseball in the league so far this year. The power is real and while he’s going to be a lot closer to a .240 hitter than a .340 hitter, I think ZiPS is underselling his thump. Alonso has a real shot at leading the league in home runs in his rookie season and though his plate discipline is far from elite, it’s good enough that he’ll still keep seeing enough eminently crushable pitches.

Daniel Vogelbach

Vogelbach’s certainly not going to finish the season — or the month — with a slugging percentage over .900, but it’s hard to fake exit velocity, and he’s behind only Aaron Judge in that this season. It’s a shame that it apparently took an injury to Kyle Seager, and the resulting temporary move of Ryon Healy to third, to get the Mariners to give Vogelbach a real extended opportunity, but there are no style points in baseball. There’s still room for improvement, as Vogelbach would have the lowest zone-swing rate in baseball if he qualified (he’s missing a few plate appearances), which raises related worries about him falling into the Ben Grieve/Jeremy Hermida trap, but as with Alonso, the power is real.

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Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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mgwalker
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Member
mgwalker

I’m beginning to worry about the legend of Ray Searage, given the recent newfound success of ex-Pirate pitchers..

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

So I read something a little while ago that said the Pirates try to have all of their pitchers try to pound the bottom of the strike zone. This was simply a terrible strategy for Glasnow, who doesn’t have the command to do that regularly. It makes sense that going to a team like Tampa–which preaches the high fastball–would at least give him a chance to try something new (I kind of felt the same way about Archer; he needed to try something different too).

HappyFunBall
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Member
HappyFunBall

It’s also a relic of the pre-launch angle days. Those uppercut swings do real damage to low pitches. If that’s the meat of it, then the legend is most certainly at risk

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Searage’s legend has mostly to do with an incredible instinct for correcting mechanics. But if someone is telling them to keep on pounding the bottom of the strike zone when the rest of the league has adjusted, then yes, we would expect they would find less success.

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

correction – pre-juiced ball days. Launch angle doesn’t work so well without juiced baseballs. Everybody wasn’t wrong…

Dominikk85
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Dominikk85
Dominikk85
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Dominikk85

That is true. However it should be noted that LA at the top of the zone is still almost 4 times higher than at the bottom of the zone (around 5 degrees vs around 20 for the top). Elite command sinkerballers can still maintain good GB rates over 50%.

However glasnow of course wasn’t elite command so many of those low FBs would either be balls or end up high thigh to get destroyed. Also while the low pitch still yields lower launch angles it is also hit harder, rarely for pop ups compared to the high pitch and yields less Ks.

The high pitch probably still is hit out a little more often but the difference is not large enough anymore to justify the other disadvantages of the low pitch.

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

Nobody makes pitchers do anything. I seriously doubt that his struggles were because they insisted on putting the target at the bottom of the zone repeatedly and just watched him walk batter after batter. I doubt that they scolded him if he threw a high fastball. The players are responsible for their performances even though there are a host of people looking to take the credit.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

You would be surprised.

Justin C
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Justin C

Have you ever played organized baseball, RonnieDobbs? That’s exactly what happens.

Jeff Reese
Member

It’s almost like it was never actually a real thing.

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

Remember Joe Maddon the genius? If you pay attention long enough I think you will probably reach the conclusion that the players play the games.

Darkstone42
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Darkstone42

I think a couple of guys figured things out after leaving, but sometimes teams and players just aren’t good fits with each other. Archer appears to have taken a step forward in Pittsburgh. Musgrove almost certainly has. Crick found his whiffs with the Buccos. Vazquez cleaned up his command. Burdi may also have cleaned up his command. Jordan freaking Lyles has been good so far in Pittsburgh.

The Pirates have drastically changed pitch usage starting mid-2018. They’ve been working up in the zone since 2017. Maybe they whiffed on getting the most out of Cole and Glasnow (I hesitate on Morton, since he had so many injuries in Pittsburgh, and he was pretty terrible before Searage put him initially on a good if not the best track for his career). But they have one of the best rotations in baseball in early 2019, on the backs of a top prospect turned solid Major Leaguer and four post-hype or never-hyped guys. I don’t think Cole and Glasnow finding success elsewhere is the indictment of Searage it’s being sold as.

Also, Glasnow was starting to figure himself out in Pittsburgh before the trade, and just didn’t find the consistency. To that end, he said himself in an interview he felt the thing Searage and Meccage were trying to teach him in a bullpen session right before the trade, so while the Rays may have polished him, the Pirates certainly didn’t ruin him, either, and may have contributed at least a little to his current success.

There’s no such thing as a perfect pitching coach. But there are really good ones, and Ray is a really good one.

evo34
Member
evo34

That’s quite the laundry list of excuses.

A lot of your points rely on three weeks of ERA, which is not exactly reliable. Jordan Lyles, for example, has exactly the same xFIP he had last year. Archer and Musgrove have essentially the same xFIP as before joining the Pirates, after adjusting for the easier quality of competition.

Mainly, the indictment of Searage hinges on the fact that it took until *mid -2018* to stop demanding that pitchers keep the ball low at all costs. That’s ridiculously behind the curve. Elite pitching coaches should be years ahead of — not behind — the rest of the league.

Darkstone42
Member
Darkstone42

There are no excuses in my post. Pirate pitching staffs have consistently outperformed their apparent talent under Searage. Pitchers who have come to Pittsburgh from elsewhere have largely performed better. He’s a good pitching coach.

And the Pirates haven’t been low-ball-exclusive in their approach since 2016. They still threw a lot of fastballs and two seamers in particular until mid-2018, but they started using the top of the zone in an effort to change hitters’ eye levels in 2017.

Ray Searage isn’t magic, and he isn’t perfect, but he handles his pitchers better than most pitching coaches do. If he didn’t the Pirates would have been a much worse team than they were last year, and they wouldn’t be off to the start they are this year. Ray didn’t get the most out of Cole, maybe. He didn’t get the most out of Glasnow, yet (though I suspect he might have, given a little more time, or some boldness to throw him into the rotation on the part of the organization). But he’s got Trevor Williams defying every expectation, got a #3 performance last season out of apparent failed starter Joe Musgrove once he was healthy last year, and that’s continued this year. Archer’s xFIP might be the same as it was in 2016-7, but it’s better than it was in 2018, and his FIP is the best it’s been since his great 2015. Lyles might have the same xFIP as last year, but that was helped by a switch to the bullpen, and this is his best xFIP as a starter since 2014.

I don’t understand why there’s such an insistence to pick a couple of very talented arms out and say, “Look, these guys prove Searage isn’t a good pitching coach!” when there’s ample evidence to the contrary.